Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell
"The Producers," a Golden Globe Nominee for Best Movie-Musical or Comedy, is one of the few films to work in Hollywood's recent apparent effort to remake every film known to man.
It's a credit to writer/producer (and original director) Mel Brooks that many of the ideas, much of the dialogue, and even a significant amount of the plot continues to be relevant, interesting and funny almost forty years after the original film, which served as Brooks' directorial debut.
By now, nearly everyone is aware that the original film, which achieved modest critical praise but significant box-office in 1968, was turned into a Tony winning Broadway play starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom.
Both actors have significant film backgrounds along with their stage work, and thus they largely succeed in transferring what is a very "stage" oriented show to the big screen. Lane has a field day as Bialystock, a formerly successful Broadway producer who now resorts to sexual encounters with a garden variety of geriatric benefactors to finance films that are largely critically panned. It is after yet another Broadway bomb that he encounters the inhibited, socially inept Leo Bloom. Bloom, as played by Broderick, is a sniveling, whiny and insecure man who still carries around a piece of his baby blanket for use during one of his many anxiety attacks.
During a post-show audit of the books, Bloom stumbles upon the knowledge that it would, with creative accounting, be possible to make more money on a show that bombs than on one that succeeds (which could explain the entire Uwe Boll phenomenon). Together, they concoct a plain to produce the worst Broadway ever on their $2 million from investors, have the show close after one night and then pocket the remaining funds.
They find the play, "Springtime for Hitler," basically a love song to the Third Reich penned by Franz Liebkind, played by a hilariously over-the-top Will Ferrell. They then hire the worst director possible, Roger De Bris (Gary Beach), played as an over-the-top queen with his endearingly campy common law assistant Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart).
Recipe for disaster? Well, you'll just have to see how it all plays out for yourself if you've never seen the original film.
Fans of the original film will have much to nitpick here, most notably the fact that Lane and Broderick are definitely not Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. With a few minor adjustments, it's rather amazing how faithful this film is to the original production. While in many ways that works marvelously, in other ways it plays old and tired. It is nearly impossible to watch the film without comparing the roles of Leo and Max between the 1968 film and this one because so many of the scenes play out similarly (especially early on). I found myself, on more than one occasion, thinking to myself "Wilder was much better in that scene." Having these thoughts not only made me enjoy the film less, but they distracted me from the film's action. While Lane is a marvelous Bialystock, he doesn't have the all encompassing presence of Mostel. Mostel literally owned the screen and absolutely commanded your attention...Lane certainly inhabits his character, but his presence is simply weaker than that of Mostel.
Likewise, in 1968, much of the humor of "The Producers" could be found in the hilariously offensive nature of "Springtime for Hitler." Fast forward 40 years, and this material simply isn't as cutting edge, dark, insightful or hilarious. While new, edgier jokes have certainly been added and certainly edgier, more sexual material added, the film ends up feeling very tame considering it centers on a stage show that "shocks" audiences (though the film is set back to the original time period).
The real find of "The Producers" lies in the role of Ulla, featuring a hilariously campy, pretty darn good singer in Uma Thurman. Watching Thurman sing "If you've got it, flaunt it" is funny, exciting and, well, arousing.
The film is directed by Susan Stroman, who choreographed the Broadway show and took over for Brooks following the death of his wife. Stroman stages the film well, though it does often feel the a stage production. The film will play best with fans of Mel Brooks, fans of musical theatre and those who've been around plays. It will likely feel very stagey to the typical "comedy" audience, and may not have distraction to attract a large audience.
"The Producers" also features strong, though brief, supporting performances from Jon Lovitz, Debra Monk and Andrea Martin along with cameo appearances by Michael Mckean and Richard Kind.
"The Producers", ultimately, works considerably more often than not with a unique humor that has long been a trademark of Mel Brooks. The film is blessed with cast members who have lived with these characters for awhile, and it shows throughout the film. Lane and Broderick have a wonderful comic chemistry and clearly trust each other enough to really let go. This allows for moderately funny material to often become hilariously funny. Likewise, Roger Bart and Gary Beach also re-create roles from Broadway and steal nearly every scene they are in with an over-the-top campy giddiness that is joyful and even a tad heartwarming.
In a season of intense dramas and lengthy epics, "The Producers" shines as an alternative for audiences weary of the dark, intense and topical films vying for Oscar attention. For lack of a better way to say it, "The Producers,", well, it produces laughs and hilarity in abundance.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Peaceful Critic